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A “trail meter” stands in Steamboat Springs. The credit card-only machines have been posted at trailheads around town to fund maintenance.

Steamboat Springs resident Julie Hagenbuch was in Los Angeles when she came by what looked to be a parking meter — except it wasn’t. It was taking donations for the homeless.

Hagenbuch’s mind went to her beloved natural places back home. She went to Helen Beall, the community impact manager for the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, which had launched an endowment to meet northwest Colorado’s demand for trail maintenance.

How about “trail meters?”

“I kept coming up with, ‘we can’t do this, because of the capacity of the foundation,’” Beall recalled.

The foundation couldn’t keep emptying change. So the idea was hatched for a credit card-only operation, taking a minimum $5 donation.

A local company offered to install the meters for free, a trail runner working as a designer offered to come up with an attractive look, the City Council gave the OK. And since the end of June, 10 meters have been posted around Steamboat, mostly at city parks, with some on Bureau of Land Management ground.

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In two months, $1,400 has been fed to the meters — “not a major money maker,” Beall said. But she suspects the posted invitation to make tax deductible donations online is working. Since June, the endowment has collected almost $22,000, she said.

One thing’s for sure about the meters: “They’re definitely getting people’s attention,” Beall said.

She’s gotten dozens of calls from leaders around Colorado, all grappling with ways to fund their crowding outdoors. In Colorado Springs, Susan Davies of the Trails and Open Space Coalition took notice as someone long perturbed by the way her city supports parks, or lack thereof.

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Each resident’s annual tax contribution to El Paso County parks amounts to $2.74, according to the 2019 budget. City parks gets a boost upwards of $9 million every year from the sales tax-supported Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) program, but the department’s general fund is still below pre-recession levels.

“Maybe (local leaders) would be a little embarrassed if we have to go to people and ask,” Davies said, theorizing about meters here. “But that’s the reality. ... Either we’re going to have to decide we’re willing to raise taxes or we’re willing to pass the hat and take donations.”

That happens at the city’s two most popular recreation sites. The nonprofit Incline Friends regularly collects change dropped in a locked box at the trailhead. Contributions range from coins to checks for $100 or more, said the group’s president, Bill Beagle.

And inside the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center, some of the 1.2 million people passing through every year put donations into boxes labeled with their home states. Last year’s total was $30,850, said visitor center General Manager Linda Carter, with that money split between the Friends of the Garden of the Gods and the Garden of the Gods Foundation.

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Carter called the funds “significant,” helping to pay for environmental assessments, trail work and the park’s ongoing bathroom construction. Might donations have similar impacts elsewhere around town?

“My initial thought is these other parks just don’t have the visitation Garden of the Gods does,” she said.

But a credit card option might pay dividends, Beagle said, with hikers and bikers more likely to have that handy than cash. Maybe a bunch of meters around would be “annoying,” he said. “I don’t know how attractive that’d be. But it’s a great idea. ... Most trail users are very generous, very supportive.”

That’s what Beall is learning in Steamboat, pleased by the donation flow. “I think it’s just people knowing that trails aren’t free,” she said.

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